Giftmas 2018

Ah, ’tis the season, one more time! The wonderful Rhonda Parrish is holding the Giftmas 2018 Advent Blog Tour to benefit The Edmonton Food Bank. She brought together 24 writers, who have donated a piece of writing for this glorious endeavour. Gotta love it!

The big thing is donating to the Edmonton Food Bank. Rhonda is aiming for… well, here. She can tell you better than I can! 

“Before we get to the story, however, a quick word about the tour, if I may. The purpose of the blog tour is to fundraise for the Edmonton Food Bank. We do that by collecting donations through our Canada Helps page which you can find right here. We use Canada Helps because it’s easy, and also because then you can give with confidence knowing that the money is going exactly where it’s intended — to help struggling people. Also, by using Canada Helps it means Canadian contributors will be able to get a tax receipt. Oh, and American donors? You get some awesome value for your money because donations are all in Canadian dollars so the exchange rate will definitely work in our favour here. 

Finally, in addition to offering a story a day to everyone who’d like to read them, we like to reward those people who do what they can to help out. However they help out. Whether that be by making an actual donation, helping to boost our signal or just leaving encouraging comments on the stories themselves. They all help. So we’ve got a rafflecopter with tonnes and tonnes of prizes. You can read the full list here but they include loads of books, critiques, a magazine subscription, dice and more.” From Rhonda “the Christmas Elf” Parrish, on her blog.

Tiffany Michelle Brown’s story donation was yesterday. If you haven’t yet, go check it out.  But don’t forget to come back! I’ve got a great story to share with you all!

The story  I chose to donate is called “Oslo’s Wishes” and was first published with the 10th Circle Project–specifically, in Bourbon & Eggnog, the Christmas anthology.  I quite like this story of a couple of old guys trying to make enough money for Christmas. Enjoy!

 

Oslo’s Wish

  Oslo Kinder met Jasper Wells every day at Hope Full, the local cafe, for lunch and a talk. They’d been doing it for so many years Oslo couldn’t imagine a day without it. Since the factory closed and they both lost their jobs, a lot of Jasper’s talk wrapped around money making schemes. This day was no different.

  “It’s a good idea,” Jasper said, sipping his weak tea and gargling around his ill-fitting dentures. “I mean, nobody owns those trees up there.” He pointed through the wall of the cafe in the general direction of Hope Mountain. “Do they?”

  Oslo Kinder met Jasper Wells every day at Hope Full, the local cafe, for lunch and a talk. They’d been doing it for so many years Oslo couldn’t imagine a day without it. Since the factory closed and they both lost their jobs, a lot of Jasper’s talk wrapped around money making schemes. This day was no different.

  “I dunno,” Oslo said. He picked through the remains of his grilled cheese sandwich, then tucked the crusts in his paper napkin and into his pocket. That fat, black squirrel at the park would like them, he figured.

  “You’re not paying attention to me,” Jasper said, slapping the top of the cafe table with his arthritic hand and making his cup jump. “It’s a good idea! A great idea and you aren’t listening to me at all.”

  “Jasper, I heard you,” Oslo said patiently. He didn’t want Jasper to make a scene. He liked coming to this place. “I just don’t know how we’d find out who owns the trees up the mountain.”

  He also didn’t know how they’d cut down the trees and bring them back down the mountain to Hope to set up their own—unlicensed, Oslo assumed—Christmas tree lot, but he didn’t want to point out all the flaws in Jasper’s money making plan right off the bat. One thing was for certain, though. A little money over Christmas would be nice.

  “Can we check that sort of thing out at the library?” he asked.

  “What sort of thing?” Jasper barked, still looking peeved.

  “Who owns the trees?”

  Jasper considered, gargling down another mouthful of tea. “Prob’ly,” he said.

  “Just to stay on the good side of the law,” Oslo said.

  Jasper finally nodded. “That’s prob’ly a good idea. You gonna do that? I have errands to run.”

  Errands to run meant a bottle to buy and consume, but Oslo didn’t harass Jasper about it. They both had their own way of warming up on a day as brisk as this one. Jasper used alcohol, and Oslo used the library. He knew it would be warm. Warmer than his room at the rooming house. A little research seemed like a thing to do.

  “Happy to,” he said, and placed a five New Dollar bill on the table to cover his meal. “I’ll let you know what I find out tomorrow.”

#

  The next day, Oslo met Jasper at the cafe. Most of the anxiety he’d felt since he’d lost his job at the factory was gone, replaced with an excitement he barely remembered ever feeling in his life. He must have, because he’d lived over 60 years, but he couldn’t remember his heart ever feeling so light.

  He didn’t get a chance to tell Jasper his wonderful news right off the bat, though, because Jasper jabbered on about a guy he’d met the night before who ran an underground fight ring. He wanted cleaners for after the fights, and Oslo realized that Jasper was talking about taking that job – cleaning up blood and broken teeth. He’d forgotten about his Christmas tree idea.

  “Whoa, Jasper,” Oslo said. “I thought you and me had a plan. Yesterday. Remember?”

  Jasper stared at him for a long moment, as though trying to remember exactly what he was talking about. “Oh,” he finally said. “The trees. Right?”

  “Exactly right,” Oslo said.

  “I bin thinking about that,” Jasper said. “Lots of work involved. Lots.” He shook his head, acting like he’d given the plan one more thought. “I don’t know how we could pull it off.”

  “I got it worked out,” Oslo said.

  Jasper looked at him in surprise. “You figured out who owns the trees?”

  “Yes.”

  “Who?”

  “No one.”

  Jasper looked suspicious. Oslo didn’t much blame him.

  “Really,” he said. “I went to the library and got all the information. No one owns a big patch of forest, up on the mountain. We don’t need to pay anybody for the privilege.”

  Jasper didn’t look pleased, and Oslo suspected he was still thinking about what easy money it would be cleaning up after another man’s fight.

  “There is the matter of transport,”he finally said. “I hadn’t thought through the logistics of the whole operation yesterday. I don’t know how we’d get those trees down…”

  “I got us a horse and sled,” Oslo said, and smiled brightly, happy to finally tell Jasper the best part of his news.

  After he’d been to the library, he’d talked to Jerry Rappaport, another casualty of the factory closing. Jerry lived just outside of town, and Oslo knew he had a horse and sled on his little hobby farm. He also had a wife who was a school teacher, so he wasn’t hurting for money and could afford to be generous. When he heard what their scheme was Jerry had agreed to lend them the horse and sled—and threw in a couple of axes.

  “Us factory boys gotta stick together,” he’d said. “Just feed Dusty good and give me a tree and we’ll call it square.”

  Jasper’s mouth opened wide, and when his loose dentures slipped, he slapped it shut again. “You ever handle a horse before?” he asked.

  “That’s all I worked with, growing up,” Oslo said, allowing a smile to soften his face. “She’s a pretty thing, Jasper. And gentle. You’ll like her.”

  Jasper stared at him for a long time, taking a gargle of his tea. “Axes?” he finally asked.

  “I got ‘em.”

  “Hmm.” Jasper’s face had taken on a pinched look. With a start, Oslo realized Jasper thought he was pulling his leg.

  “I’m not kidding,” he said, reaching over and patting Jasper on the arm, hard. “We’re set,” he said. “Can you believe it? We’re gonna make some money before Christmas.”

#

  They’d estimated that they could take twenty trees back without crushing them and possibly breaking branches.

  “No broken branches,” Jasper kept saying as they set up base camp. “People gotta feel like they’ve plucked the thing from the bosom of the earth themselves, with nothing damaged, or they won’t want to buy it.”

  Oslo had been worried that since they were coming to an untouched part of the forest, there would be no young trees of the right size, but their luck held. They found a stand of evergreens, all about six feet tall, and all beautiful.

  “We can start here,” Jasper said. They pulled out their axes and walked around the trees.

  “These all look good,” Oslo said.

  “They look great,” Jasper replied. “We could take them all and have our twenty, right now.”

  “Let’s not do that,” Oslo replied. “Let’s just take a few from here. Leave the rest to grow. It’s only our first day. We got time.”

  Jasper grumbled, but finally agreed. They picked five, and carefully cut them down and placed them in the sled. Then they moved on, found another spot, and chose five more. They were thinking about moving on, when Oslo looked at his watch.

  “My word, Jasper,” he said. “It’s almost dusk. We should head back to camp.”

  Jasper looked like he was going to argue, but surprised Oslo by nodding his head. “I could use some food,” he said.

  Jasper made supper while Oslo fed the horse, and then the two men ate under the stars.

  “That was a good day,” Oslo said. He’d thought they’d both be ready to give up after the first day’s hard work, but it wasn’t that way at all. He was hungry, true, and he felt his muscles, but only because he’d used them. No arthritic ache in his knees and hips, which he was so used to he barely noticed it until it was gone, and no more old man shuffle. As the day had gone on, he realized they both walked proud through the snow, like they were half their ages. It felt glorious.

  “It was,” Jasper replied. He pulled a pipe from a pocket and lit it, puffing the aromatic smoke up to the heavens. “But we gotta finish up, and get back to Hope tomorrow.”

  “Yeah.” Oslo felt his good feelings dim at the thought of going back to Hope. “I almost wish we didn’t ever have to leave,” he said. “But if things go well, and we sell all the trees, we can come back.”

  “We can do that, can’t we?” Jasper said, and blew a smoke ring at the moon. “We can most definitely do that.”

  By noon the next day, they had their twenty trees. Oslo tried not to notice his heart settle heavy in his chest, as they headed back down the mountain. And he tried not to notice that Jasper looked happy, really happy, to be going home.

  Hope looked even more dismal than it usually did as they ground their way through the dirty, clotted snow.

  “Do you have a place in mind to sell them?” Oslo asked, as the sled groaned up the snow covered street.

  “Well, no,” Jasper said. He hunched a little, and rubbed his shoulder, as though it suddenly began to hurt. “I thought maybe you had thought through to this part of the plan.”

  “I had not,” Oslo said. He pulled on the reins, and Dusty stopped. “But we better come up with something. These trees won’t last forever.”

  Jasper pinched his mouth shut, and glared out over the snow covered houses. “I guess I thought there’d be a place,” he muttered. “Maybe over where I do my business –”

  “That’s in Purgatory,” Oslo scoffed. Purgatory was their name for the worst part of town. The part where Jasper spent most of his time. “Nobody would pay for a tree in Purgatory. We’d be lucky if they didn’t steal the sled, and eat the horse, too.”

  “Well, what about…” Jasper started, but a woman who was walking her dog came up to them at that moment, and asked them about the trees. Wanted to know where they were selling them, because they looked so beautiful.

  “We don’t know, just yet,” Oslo said.

  “Oh, that’s too bad,” the woman replied.

  “If you want, we could sell you one now,” Jasper said. “These are fresh from the forest. None fresher. But you’d have to figure out a way to get it home yourself. If you want to buy one now.”

  “Thirty dollars,” Jasper said. Oslo looked at him, surprised. Thirty dollars seemed high, but the woman didn’t blink.

  “How much?” she asked.

  “New Dollars,” Jasper added.

  The woman considered, then pulled her cell phone from her purse and called her husband to come and get her. 

“I’ll take that one right there.” She pointed at  a tree in the middle of the bunch. It took them a bit to wrestle the tree out of the sled, but by the time the woman’s husband pulled up in his SUV, the deal was done, and Jasper had thirty New Dollars in his pocket.

  “See?” Jasper said. “This is going to be easy. These things practically sell themselves.”

  As they were considering where next to go, another woman in a small station wagon filled with children pulled up to their sled.

  “Rosemary called me and told me about your trees,” the woman said. “Do you mind if me and the kids have a look?”

  Oslo looked at Jasper, who grinned, and then back at the woman, who, he saw, still had curlers in her hair. “Go ahead,” he said.

  The children boiled out of the car and milled around Dusty as the woman hummed and hawed over the trees. She finally chose one, and even the children were impressed enough to leave the patient horse alone and form a reverent circle around it before it was tied to the top of the vehicle. The woman handed over the money without blinking. “Do you mind if I tell my friends?” she asked. “These are really beautiful trees.”

  “Not at all,” Oslo said.

  As she drove away, Jasper cackled delightedly, and handed the money to Oslo. “They sell themselves.”

  All through the evening, people kept finding them and buying trees from them. The people never haggled about the price, and then started bringing gifts. First carrots and apples for Dusty, and then chocolates and candy canes for the men.

  “I wish someone would bring me a sandwich,” Jasper said, when they were down to three trees, and darkness surrounded them like a thick, black cloud that the streetlights could barely pierce. “I’m hungry.”

  “That would be nice, wouldn’t it?” Oslo replied. He wasn’t as surprised as he should have been when the next van that drove up was full of people waving paper bags full of sandwiches and begging to get one of the trees before they all were gone, please!

  “Rosemary said they’re special,” a young woman with soulful, brown eyes and shockingly blonde and blue hair said. “She’s convinced the tree you sold her granted her a wish.”

  “What?” Oslo mumbled, his mouth full of succulent ham and Swiss cheese on rye, his personal favourite when it came to sandwiches. “She said it did what now?”

  “She said it granted her wish and cured her dog.” The young woman grinned and shrugged. “Sounds silly to me, but she was on her way to the vet when she bought your tree. The dog’s cancer is gone. Completely gone. She figures it’s the tree.”

  She pointed to a tall thin tree leaning against the front of the sled. “For thirty New Dollars, I’m willing to chance it. Besides, I need a tree, and these are really pretty. And cheap.”

  “Cheap?” Jasper asked, looking dismayed.

  “Oh yeah,” the girl replied. “The tree lots on the other side of town charge you sixty. At least.”

  Oslo tried to ignore the angry look Jasper threw his way. He was acting like Oslo had somehow made Jasper ask for the amount they were being paid, and for a second, Oslo wanted to smack him right across the chops.

  “So what’s your wish going to be?” Jasper asked the woman.

  “I can’t tell you,” she said. “You know wishes don’t work that way.” She handed him the money, and then she and the tree disappeared into the wildly coloured van. The door slammed shut, the heavy metal music boomed out, causing Dusty to throw her head nervously, and then they were gone.

  “Did you hear that?” Oslo asked Jasper. “They think the trees are giving wishes.”

  “Well, isn’t that something?” Jasper said, and Oslo saw a sly look fall over his face. A look he didn’t care for. “Trees that grant wishes. We’ll have to charge a lot more.”

  Oslo was going to ask him what he meant by a lot more, but he looked in the back of the sled, and saw there was just one tree left. “We need to save this tree,” he said. “I promised it.”

  “To who?” Jasper asked sharply.

  “To Jerry. Dusty’s owner. If it hadn’t been for him, we never would have made the money we did.”

  Jasper sucked air through his teeth. “All right,” he finally said. “We do owe him something.” He jumped from the sled. “You deliver it,” he said. “I got errands to run.”

  Oslo wanted to yell “don’t drink tonight, you old fool!” He didn’t. He just clicked his tongue and slapped the reins on Dusty’s back, heading out to make the last delivery of the night.

  He dropped off the tree for Jerry, and took Dusty to her barn. Then he walked back to his room and tucked his roll of money into a ripped corner of his mattress. This was a good start. With a little bit more, he could ride out the winter, almost in style. Then he slept. Not as well as he slept out in the forest, but well enough. He was going to go back, the next day. That soothed him to sleep.

  Jasper looked much the worse for wear when he and Oslo met at the cafe that next morning. His hair was tousled, his eyes bloodshot, and when he swilled down a mouthful of his tea, Oslo could see he didn’t have his dentures in his mouth.

  “Where are your teeth?” he asked.

  Jasper glowered. “I lost ‘em.”

  Oslo scoffed. “You lost your teeth?”

  “I don’t want to talk about it.”

  The rest of their breakfast was spent in tight silence. It wasn’t until they paid the bill—actually, Oslo paid the bill, because it appeared that Jasper had lost more than his dentures—that the two of them discussed whether they should go back for more trees.

   “Of course we should,” Jasper snapped, shuddering in the early morning cold as they walked the three miles down back alleys to lane ways surrounded by snow covered gardens, to the barn where Dusty and the sled were kept. “I say we double the number of trees we bring, and double the price, too. We worked too hard for too little the last time.”

  “What about the trees getting crushed?” Oslo asked. “We pack too many in the back of that sled, we’ll break branches. You said so.”

  “I know what I said,” Jasper snapped. “But if they’re granting wishes—”

  “Trees don’t grant wishes, Jasper. You know that.”

  “If people think they’re granting wishes,” Jasper continued, as though Oslo hadn’t said a word, “they’ll pay more for them, and they won’t be bothered by a broken branch or two. Now, will they?”

  “It don’t seem right,” Oslo said, stubbornly.

  “I don’t care what you think,” Jasper replied. The tight silence descended over the two of them again, lasting well past getting to the barn, harnessing the horse, and heading back out to the mountain.

  The closer they got to the forest, the less the silence felt tight and angry to Oslo. He took a deep breath of the pine scented air, and then another.

  “Can we split the difference?” he asked. “Cut half again as many trees, and charge half again as much?”

  Jasper glanced over at him, and Oslo was happy to see that he didn’t look as angry as he had at the cafe. “That sounds like a deal,” he said.

  “A deal,” Oslo repeated the words, then shivered when he heard his own voice echoing through the trees, bouncing off the mountain, and away. The voice sounded lost, like it had just made a deal with the Devil.

  He shook his head. The sun was shining, sparkling off the freshly fallen snow, making everything look fresh and clean. Safe.

  They were just selling trees, he reminded himself. There was nothing wrong with them making money this way. Nothing at all.

  They dropped their few supplies at base camp, then headed back into the forest to begin cutting more trees. They found stand after stand that looked suitable, but Jasper shook his head every time.

  “Keep going,” he said. “I know there are better ones. We just have to find them.”

  The further up the mountain they went, the darker the forest got, and the coarser the trees looked. Oslo looked up, and could see blue sky and sunshine above them, but it didn’t seem to reach down to where they were. He shivered. Even the temperature felt like it had dropped by ten degrees.

  “We’ve gone far enough,” he finally said, and pulled on the reins. Dusty stopped, seemingly thankful they weren’t going any further into the forest. Jasper growled, but jumped out of the sled when he couldn’t convince either Oslo or the horse to move an inch further.

  “These look good,” he said. “Let’s start here.”

  Oslo didn’t think they looked good. Not at all. There was a darkness to the needles that didn’t have anything to do with the ever lessening light around them. Oslo stepped closer and could see the limbs were twisted and deformed, as though they had been bound by rope before they were able to properly grow. He shuddered, deep in his skin. They looked like they were reaching for him with crippled hands.

  He and Jasper cut the trees down quickly and quietly, going well past five. Oslo didn’t care whether they wiped out the whole stand. Even the bark felt wrong under his gloved hands as he tossed the trees up into the sled.

  “That’s enough,” Jasper said. “Let’s move on.”

  Though Oslo wanted to yell “I don’t want to!” he followed Jasper back on to the sled, and clucked his tongue to get Dusty moving. She turned her head and stared at them as though they were both mad, then began to pull the sled further into the forest.

  They heard the wolves before they found the next stand of trees. At least Oslo thought they were wolves. There was something not right about their howls, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. All he knew for sure was they sounded dangerously close.

  “How close are they?” he asked, as Dusty danced nervously in her harness and the sled jogged back and forth, leaving a jerky trail in the snow. “They sound close.”

  “Not too,” Jasper said, but he looked nervous. “Maybe they smell the horse.”

  “We don’t have a gun,” Oslo said. “Maybe we should head back.”

  “No,” Jasper said, and straightened his back. “We need more trees.” He pointed. “Just over there.”

  They pulled up to another twisted, dark stand of young trees. Oslo had difficulty making Dusty stay. Her nervous dance had become more manic, and he could see the whites of her eyes.

  The wolves howled again, and they sounded much closer. The horse gave a short sharp whinny, and tried to pull away, back down the mountain to the light.

  “Hurry up!” Oslo called to Jasper. Jasper nodded his head.

  He began to cut down the trees, walking from one to the next, cutting the thin trunks with three quick slashes of his axe. Oslo followed, grabbing the trees and tossing them into the sled, and working at keeping the panic stricken horse from running. In no time, they had fifteen more trees, and Jasper threw himself into the sled.

  “Time to go.” He looked back and jumped nervously as the wolves howled a third time. “Get the horse moving,” he said. “I think I see one.”

  “Good grief!” Oslo gasped. He slapped the reins on Dusty’s back, and she leapt to, grunting as she pulled the heavily laden sled free from the snow that seemed to be grabbing and holding them in place. Then he glanced back to the stand of trees, and was certain he saw three or four shadowy figures moving from tree to tree. Stalking them.

  The wolves were stalking them.

  “Go!” Jasper cried, clutching the seat with both hands. “Go go go!”

  The sled pulled free, and then they were careening down the mountain, the dark twisted trees slapping at the sled and the horse, and sometimes, the faces of the frightened men.

  Finally, they bounded around a curve, and sunlight touched their faces. The temperature shot up ten degrees and they could no longer hear the wolves. Oslo pulled on the reins.

  “Are we going to stop at camp?” he asked. “To have something to eat, and rest the horse?”

  Jasper frowned, as though he was considering. “No,” he finally said. “We got business down in Hope. Besides, the horse looks all right.”

  Oslo didn’t think the horse looked all right. Her sides were lathered with sweat and she walked with her head down, swaying side to side with every step she took. He shook his head.

  “At least let me water her,” he said. “It’ll only take a few minutes.”

  “Fine,” Jasper said, his face tight, like a fist.

  They pulled up to their camp, and Oslo unharnessed Dusty, rubbing her down with his blanket, and then watering her. She drank deeply, and after an hour, looked like she could finish the trip.

  “We gotta treat her better,” he said to Jasper as he settled the harness on the horse and backed her to the sled. “She isn’t ours.”

  “The horse is fine,” Jasper said. “Let’s go.”

  “You got an errand to run?” Oslo asked, sarcastically.

  “So what if I do?” Jasper snapped.

  “You’re wasting your money,” Oslo said. “We can get maybe one more load of trees after this. Then it’s Christmas.”

  “You don’t worry about me and my money,” Jasper said. “You just convince that bag of bones to get us back to town.”

  Oslo clucked his tongue, and the horse jumped to, and before the sun had fully set, they were back on the streets of Hope, and their first customer of the evening sidled up to them as though he’d been waiting for the sled to appear.

  “I hear you have special trees,” the man said, looking around as though he was watching for the cops. “Sell me one.”

  “Pick whichever one you want,” Oslo said, frowning. The man looked familiar, but Oslo couldn’t place his face.

  “They’re sixty dollars,” Jasper said. “And no haggling.”

  Though Oslo goggled at Jasper, because the price was much more than they had agreed to, the man simply shrugged and pointed at the tree closest to the back of the sled. “That one will do,” he said.

  As Oslo pulled the tree with the twisted branches down and handed it to the man, he saw other people waiting in the dark.

  “Thank you,” he said as the man walked away, pulling the tree behind him. “Merry Christmas.”

  “Whatever,” the man said. “It just better work.” Then he disappeared into the darkness.

  Oslo frowned. “Wasn’t that Rosemary’s husband?”

  “Who is Rosemary?” Jasper asked.

  “The woman with the dog. She bought they first tree,” Oslo replied. “I’m sure that’s the guy who helped her haul it home. Why would he need another tree?”

  Jasper didn’t answer, and Oslo soon forgot about Rosemary’s husband, because people had surrounded the sled demanding trees, right now, dammit!

  They sold all but one before Rosemary’s husband came back, looking wild.

  “What did you sell me?” he cried. “What the hell did you do to that tree?”

  “No refunds,” Jasper said shortly, looking past him to see if there was anyone else hiding in the darkness to whom he could sell the last tree.

  “What happened?” Oslo asked. He felt a jerk of fear at the wild look on the guy’s face.

The man put his hands in his pockets and pulled them out again, as though he couldn’t decide whether he was cold or not. “She told me about the tree, and the wish. That yappy little dog of hers being cured. And I thought, ‘what the hell.’ But I didn’t want—” He grunted, as though trying to keep from sobbing. “I want to take the wish back.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Oslo said. “All we did was sell you a tree.”

  “My wife nearly died!” Rosemary’s husband cried. “Her mouth stitched shut or something, and then her eyes, and then her ears. She’s just sitting there, beside that damned tree. Like a statue. With her mouth stitched shut. What did you sell me?”

  “No refunds,” Jasper snarled. “Now get outta here.”

  “Jasper,” Oslo whispered, horrified.

  Jasper turned on him, and snarled. “Shut your mouth,” he said. “They pay their money and take their chances.” He turned to the man. “Get outta here!” he yelled.

  “I’m going to get the cops on you,” the man said. “I swear to God.” He took a step back, and stumbled on the curb.

  “Do what you need to,” Jasper growled. “Just leave us alone.” He turned to Oslo. “Time for us to go.”

  Oslo went to the horse’s head and got her moving away from the man lying on the street. He could hear him sobbing and saying, “I want to take it back, please let me take it back.”

  Then they rounded a corner, and he couldn’t hear the man’s voice anymore.

  “This was a good run,” Jasper said, trotting to catch up with Oslo. “We made a nice batch of cash, this time. Tomorrow—”

  “There won’t be a tomorrow,” Oslo said. “Did you hear that man? Did you hear what that tree did to his wife?”

  “Oh come on, Oslo! He’s crazy! He probably did it himself, and he’s just looking for someone to blame. Quit thinking so hard about this. We go back up tomorrow, get one more load, and we’ll be set for the winter. Don’t you want to be set for the winter?”

  Oslo thought of the roll of bills in his pocket, and the smaller roll in his room at the rooming house. Jasper was right about that, at least. The money was going to make winter much easier to bear. Maybe he was right about the rest of it. Those trees couldn’t be granting wishes. They just couldn’t be.

  Oslo went back to his room and made himself some thin broth, eating four-day-old bread with it as the television with the one wavering channel kept him company. He tried to keep his thoughts on his meal, but he couldn’t. In his mind’s eye, he saw the wife of the man who had purchased the first dark tree. Lips sewn shut, as though psychotic elves had attacked her. Granting her husband’s wish.

  Then he drifted to sleep and the wolves invaded his dreams. Snarling and snapping and looking less like wolves than something else. Almost human but not quite. Almost wolf, but not quite.

  He woke with a half scream, and promised himself they would go no further into the forest than the first stand of trees, the next day.

  “Only to the good trees,” he mumbled, staring at the television’s snowy picture and waiting for the night to be over. “We are only getting good trees, next time. I don’t care what Jasper says.”

  The sun was up, thin and grey looking, before Jasper arrived at the cafe. He looked as though he hadn’t been to bed, and he laughed crazily as he stumbled and almost fell into the seat across from Oslo.

  Oslo saw the hard look the waitress gave their table. He didn’t want to be tossed out. “You all right?” he whispered.

  “I’m good. Good,” Jasper mumbled. Oslo smelled liquor wafting off him like he’d bathed in it. “Just some coffee and I’ll be right as rain.”

  “Maybe we should take the day off,” Oslo said. “You look like you need a little sleep.”

  “I don’t need nothin’!” Jasper bellowed, slapping the top of the table, hard. Both waitresses jumped and stared, then began whispering. Oslo sighed. Not too long before they were going to be invited to leave. Damn Jasper, anyhow.

  He persuaded the waitress to sell them a coffee to go before she threw them out, and Jasper swilled it back as they walked to the barn. The temperature was much colder than it had been the day before, and Oslo watched the steam rise from the coffee cup, thinking it would have been smart of him to get one for himself.

  By the time they got to the Rappaport farm,, Jasper had finished the coffee and tossed the cup. He seemed more together. 

“Do you think we should tell Joe we’re taking Dusty?” Oslo asked. 

Jasper glanced at the dark house, and shook his head. “Doesn’t look like they’re in,” he said. “Let’s just take the horse and go. He won’t care.”

Oslo harnessed the horse and they set out down the road to the forest. Jasper sat beside Oslo on the sled and talked. He wasn’t in a good mood, but at least he was stringing words together in coherent sentences. Oslo was almost glad, until he realized what Jasper was saying.

  “Are you crazy?” he shouted. Dusty threw up her head and showed the whites of her eyes. “Why the heck do you think we need to go further into the forest? There are plenty of good trees right by our camp.”

  “Like you said, we don’t want to use them all up,” Jasper said. “We gotta think of next year. This is a good scam, so we go further in to the forest this time.”

  “But the wolves,” Oslo whispered. He remembered his dreams—or nightmares—and shuddered. “We gotta watch out for the wolves.”

  “We’re set,” Jasper said, and wrestled with his pocket, finally pulling out an ancient hand gun. “No problem.”

  He waved it around and accidentally pulled the trigger, shooting between Dusty’s ears. She screamed and ran, and for a hectic moment or two all Oslo could do was yank the reins as he tried to get the horse under control. Jasper clutched the seat, the gun still in one hand.

  “Point it away from me, you crazy fool!” Oslo yelled, as he finally pulled the horse to a stop. “You want to kill me too?”

  “Sorry, sorry,” Jasper muttered, pulling on the safety and tucking the gun into his coat pocket. “Just wanted you to see it. Cost us a pretty penny.”

  “Us?” Oslo snarled. “Us?”

  “Well, yeah,” Jasper said. He frowned. “We need protection, and I got us some. I figure you got to pay for half of it.” He held out his hand as though he expected Oslo to pay him for half the gun right there.

  “I don’t have any money with me,” Oslo said, even though he didn’t feel like he needed to pay for half a gun that had almost killed Dusty.

  “It’s OK,” Jasper replied. “I’ll take it out of your money for the next batch.”

  He leaned back, whistling tunelessly between his teeth, and didn’t look at Oslo until he chucked the reins and got Dusty moving again.

  Oslo thought hard about turning around and heading back to town. To hell with Jasper and his gun and his idea of going further into that forest. Oslo had enough money in his mattress that he could keep body and soul together until spring.

  But the further they went into the forest, the less he wanted to turn around and go back. The sun warmed the skin of his face, and the pine scented air soothed his soul. When they finally got to their camp, he felt all right with the world.

  He stopped the horse and leapt from the sled.

  “We got to get going,” Jasper said, but Oslo ignored him as he loosened Dusty’s harness and fed her.

  “We got lots of time,” he said. “And we all need to eat.”

  “No, we don’t,” Jasper said. He was still sitting on the wooden bench of the sled. “We need to be in and get out before it gets dark.”

  “We have hours,” Oslo said.

  “Remember the wolves,” Jasper said. “It’ll be better for us if we’re gone way before dark. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to the horse, would we?”

  Oslo looked at him, sitting cold and stiff on the sled, and wondered if Jasper was actually thinking about the welfare of Dusty, or whether he’d shoot the horse to save his own butt if the wolves did come back. He suspected the latter.

  “No, we do not,” he said. “But we’re not leaving until we eat. You best get down and help me, so we can get going quicker.”

  Jasper glared, then jumped down and unhooked the rope that was holding their small cache of food up in a tree. He pulled out a can without looking, and opened it. Snarled that it was frozen, and started a small, smudgy fire, warming the can and the beans within to smoke smelling lukewarm. Then he and Oslo both dug in, eating the beans standing.

  “Is that enough?” Jasper asked when the can was cleaned and then buried, and their utensils were slung back up in the tree with the rest of their supplies. “Can we go now?”

  “Yes,” Oslo sighed, as he pulled the harness tight on the horse again. “We’re ready to go.”

  Jasper won half the battle, and they drove past the first stands of trees they’d plundered. They decided to skirt the next bit of the forest, and headed east. The darkness of the forest returned, and the temperature dropped, but Jasper kept saying “Just a little further,” so they kept going.

  The trees in this part of the forest were gnarled and ancient looking. Long tufts of moss hung from them, like grey, moth-eaten shawls over the shoulders of old, crippled witches. Oslo started shivering, and could not stop.

  “We should turn around,” he said, shuddering. “This is even worse than yesterday.”

  “No, this is good,” Jasper said, looking excited. He pointed at trees that Oslo could only describe as horrifying, and saying “They look fantastic! These will sell for even more! Even more!”

  Oslo didn’t want to fight with him anymore. “Fine,” he said, and leaped from the sled. “But this is as far as I go. If we don’t get enough here, I don’t care. I’m not going any further into this forest.”

  “I think we can get fifty,” Jasper said.

  “Fifty!” Oslo yelled. His voice carried, echoing ‘fifty!” up the mountain and through the forest until it sounded like a wild animal roaring insanely. “Fifty?” he whispered.

  “Fifty, at a hundred a piece. Then we’re set.” He smiled, but Oslo felt no warmth from it, and he turned away.

  “Whatever,” he muttered.

  He set to, hacking the trees down as quickly as he could. He soon worked up a sweat that felt cold on his skin. He couldn’t seem to get warm, no matter how hard he swung the axe. No matter how many of the twisted deformed trees he cut down.

  When Jasper cried out “That’s fifty!” Oslo turned around, and felt sick when he saw the swath of destruction he’d wrought on this part of the forest.

  

  Jasper had thrown the trees willy-nilly into the sled, and Oslo could see broken branches even from where he stood. He didn’t say a word though. Just shouldered the axe and walked back to the sled.

  “Let’s get the hell out of here,” he said. Jasper scoffed, and took the seat next to him.

  “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you swear,” he said.

  “I never had the need to swear before,” Oslo replied.

  “Even with the year you had?” Jasper asked.

  “Even with that,” he said. He slapped the reins on the horse’s back, and she jumped, and then jumped again, as she tried to get the sled to move.

  “What’s wrong with the damned horse now?” Jasper asked.

  The sled’s too heavy,” Oslo said. “We should toss some trees. Lighten it up.” He said ‘toss some trees’ but he thought toss them all. 

Jasper shook his head vehemently. “No damned way! Beat the frigging horse until she pulls. We got to get down to Hope.”

  Oslo slapped the reins against the horse’s back again, and she gamely tried to pull, but the sled was too heavy.

  What are those trees made of? Oslo thought. Concrete?

  He jumped off the sled, to lighten the load. Dusty still couldn’t pull it.

  “Get off the sled,” he said to Jasper.

  “Why the hell should I?” Jasper snarled.

  “Because if you don’t, all of us will be stuck in this godforsaken part of the forest after dark” Oslo said. “Get down. Now.”

  Jasper snarled again, but did get down. He stood watching as Oslo tried again to get the horse to pull.

  “Go to the back and push,” Oslo said.

  “Jesus,” Jasper said, and stepped to the back of the sled. Oslo couldn’t be sure that he was putting his shoulder to the sled, but hoped he was. Poor Dusty needed all the help she could get.

  He leaned his head close to hers. “Come on, girl,” he whispered. Her ears flicked back and she snorted softly, then put every ounce of her strength into straining on the harness.

  The sled creaked, and then groaned.

  “We’re almost out!” Oslo cried. “Push, Jasper.”

  “Oslo,” Jasper said, his voice sounding strange. “Oslo—”

  Oslo ignored Jasper, and patted Dusty on the neck. “You can do it, girl,” he said. “I know you can.”

  She jumped against the harness, and the sled seemed to move an inch forward. “Good girl,” Oslo said. “Keep going.”

  “Oslo, it’s the wolves.” Jasper’s voice barely carried from the back of the sled, but Oslo’s heart clamped, painfully, in his chest.

  “Oh my God, pull girl,” he whispered to the horse, as Jasper bellowed in fear. The horse neighed, frightened by his tone, and lunged against the harness, finally making the sled move. She took another lunging step, and another and the sled lurched along behind her. Slow, but picking up speed.

  “Jasper,” Oslo called. “Are you all right?”

  “Help me!” Jasper cried. He sounded like he was further away from the sled than a moment before.

  “We’re moving, Jasper!” Oslo cried. “Catch up you fool! Get back on the sled!”

  He heard another strangled cry from Jasper, and then a gunshot. Dusty threw her head back, screamed in fear, and threw herself even harder against the harness. The sled picked up even more speed, but Oslo stopped and let the sled slide by him. He didn’t know what he could do, but he was going to go back and save Jasper.

  Jasper was ten yards away, lying in the snow. He had his gun out, waving it at an animal stalking back and forth around him. Oslo breathed in relief. Only one. They could chase away one of the things.

  As he ran back, the creature half stood, and howled. Oslo got a really good look at it, and felt his bowels loosen as he slid next to Jasper.

  “Shoot it!” he cried.

  Jasper took aim and shot again, and Oslo watched the bullet hit the thing full in the chest. It barely reacted. Just fell back on all fours and resumed stalking Jasper.

  “What is that thing?” Oslo breathed.

  “A wolf,” Jasper cried. “It has to be a wolf.” He took aim again, and another shot rang out, echoing through the trees and up the mountain.

  “That’s no wolf,” Oslo said. Then he frowned. “What is it?”

  The creature growled, its teeth huge and pointed, so many of them they barely seemed to fit in its mouth. Jasper took another shot and finally, it dropped.

Oslo took a tentative step toward the body, but he couldn’t tell what animal it was. And he couldn’t convince himself to go any closer.

 “Maybe we should skin it, whatever it is,” Jasper said. “We could make a few bucks off the hide. Couldn’t we?”

  “No,” Oslo said, emphatically. “Just leave it where it is. The trees are more than enough.”

For once, Jasper didn’t argue with him. Just pulled himself upright and tucked the gun back in his pocket, then followed Oslo as he chased after the sled and the horse.

#

  Four hours later they were on the outskirts of Hope. The darkness hung cold and damp over both of them, though the horse still steamed with the sweat she’d worked up pulling the sled down the mountain.

  “We should stop and feed her,” Oslo said, but didn’t argue much when Jasper shook his head, silently. He wanted to get rid of these trees, too.

  When they came to the corner where they’d sold the trees the night before, he pulled off his coat, and placed it over Dusty’s shoulders, silently promising he’d take her back to her barn where it was warm and dry, and treat her like a queen. But first they had to get rid of the trees.

  There were people waiting, just like the evening before. But these people were rough looking. Angry looking. They waved money like magic wands and demanded a tree, pronto.

  Jasper sold three before they were properly stopped and two more before Oslo had covered the horse and promised her everything under the sun if she’d just be patient a little while longer. Jasper stuffed his half of the bills in Oslo’s hand without making eye contact.

  “This won’t take any time at all,” he whispered.

  “Thank God,” Oslo whispered back.

  They had sold half their twisted, deformed stock when the woman shambled toward them.

  “Here comes another one,” Jasper said, pointing at her past the throng of people waiting for a turn to buy a tree. “You deal with her. I’m busy with this bunch.”

Oslo looked where he was pointing, and frowned. Something about her was familiar, but he couldn’t quite place her.

“Looks to me like she’s grinning ear to ear,” he said. “Maybe she’s bringing Dusty a carrot, or us a sandwich. My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut—”

  “No, she’s not smiling,” Jasper said. “That’s bad plastic surgery or something.”

  Oslo felt a thrill of horror run down his back when he really saw her face as she walked up to them. It was Rosemary, the woman who bought their first tree. At least he thought it was.

  Rosemary’s face was a mishmash of cuts, most of them still leaking thin drools of blood. Cuts around her eyes, and her ears, and her mouth. Many, many cuts around her mouth, as though she’d used a kitchen knife to open it wider. One corner had been sliced two extra inches, and Oslo could see her teeth through her split cheek.

  “That’s not bad plastic surgery,” he said. “It looks like she did the job herself. Jesus!”

  As she walked under the street light, Oslo could see bits of thick black thread still running through her lips, where they’d been sewn shut. Oslo felt sick, and turned to Jasper.

  “Rosemary’s husband bought a tree yesterday.”

  “What about it?” Jasper was so busy selling trees to the angry crowd around the sled, he barely paid Oslo any mind.

  “Look at her face,” Oslo said, grabbing him by the shoulder and whirling him around. “You can still see the thread. Why did you sell her another tree?”

  “Oh.” Jasper shrugged. “She must’ve been getting a little of her own back.”

  Before Oslo could reply, Rosemary pushed her way up to the front of the crowd, and held out a half-full bottle of whiskey to Jasper.

  “Thanksh,” she said, blood from her lips spattering on the snow at her feet. “It worked like a charm. That son of a bitch husband of mine will never tell me to be quiet again. Ever.”

  Jasper took the bottle and upended it, gargling back the liquor and then throwing the empty bottle out into the street. It smashed, and Dusty jerked nervously.

  “What did you do?” Oslo asked.

  “I didn’t do anything,” Rosemary said. “It was your tree. Made him hack himself up into little pieces. Little pieces!” She turned away from Oslo, and spoke to the crowd. “These things work! They’ll get rid of anybody you want gone! Well worth the price!”

  The crowd roared its approval, and more money was waved at Jasper. Oslo felt frozen. They weren’t just selling trees. They were selling vengeance. They were selling murder.

  “We gotta stop,” Oslo said. “Jasper, this is wrong.”

  “There’s nothing wrong with selling a tree or two,” Jasper replied, stuffing bills in his pocket and throwing trees out of the back of the sled into the waiting hands of the crowd.

  “These trees are evil,” Oslo said. “We can’t do this anymore.”

  “Screw you,” Jasper growled. He grabbed a tree and threw it over the side of the sled to a small child who looked as though he’d never eaten a decent meal in his life. The child grinned and hugged the tree to him, pushing his way through the crowd, and growling like a little animal at someone who dared reach out a hand to touch his tree.

  “Stop,” Oslo said. “Please stop.”

  “Leave him alone,” Jasper cackled. “Kids deserve a good Christmas wish too.”

  “That’s enough!” Oslo cried. He leapt up into the sled and grabbed Jasper, shaking him like a terrier would a rat. “We’re not selling any more of these trees!”

  “Screw you!” Jasper yelled. “We’re giving the people what they want!”

  The crowd roared its angry approval, and surged toward the sled as Jasper tried to pull free from Oslo. 

Oslo didn’t care about any of that. He was going to put a stop to what they were doing, no matter what. He yanked Jasper closer and reached into the inner pocket of his coat. He pulled out Jasper’s big gold lighter.

  As Jasper growled and reached for it, the crowd silenced, and as one took a big step back. “Give me that,” Jasper yelled. “Right now!”

  “No,” Oslo said, holding the lighter above his head. “I’m putting a stop to all of this, even if you won’t.”

  “You crazy bastard!” Jasper yelled. “It’s no wonder you lost your frigging job. You don’t have a clue about making money!”

  “And you don’t know how to be a decent human being,” Oslo yelled back. He pushed Jasper into the trees in disgust. “If this is the way we need to make money, I want no more of it. We are going to stop. Now!”

  “Walk away then, you pussy!” Jasper screeched, kicking out at him with his boots. “This was my idea anyhow!”

  “I wish you and these trees would just get lost,” Oslo said. He felt exhausted, and his ankles hurt where Jasper had kicked him. He leaned over his knees and closed his eyes, tossing the gold lighter down to the bottom of the sled. It clattered as it struck wood. “Preferably somewhere far away.”

  The crowd took in a collective breath, and then went completely silent. Oslo opened his eyes, afraid that somehow the stupid lighter had opened and he’d caught the sled on fire. Would serve me right, he thought.

  Jasper was gone. So were the trees. Not a needle or branch remained. Only the gold plated lighter, still lying where Oslo had thrown it.

  “Where did he go?” he asked, stupidly looking around as though he thought Jasper was hiding. “Did you see where he went?”

  No-one in the crowd answered, and though a couple of men shouted that he should be shot for getting rid of the rest of the trees, no one else took up the chant. In clots of one and two, they drifted off, until finally, Oslo was alone.

  “What did I do?” he whispered. Then a sound touched his ears. A sound, coming from so far away, he couldn’t quite make it out. A voice. Calling.

  Calling his name.

  He looked around, thinking that perhaps some of the crowd had stuck around and were taunting him. But there was no one there. Just he and the horse remained.

  “Did you hear anything, Dusty?” he asked.

  The horse neighed and nodded her head, as though letting him know that he wasn’t losing his mind. She’d heard the voice, too.

  Again, he heard his name being called. From far away. He frowned. “Is that Jasper?” he asked. Then he called. “Jasper? Is that you?”

  And he was certain he heard Jasper’s voice cry, “I’m coming back with more trees, Oslo! They practically sell themselves!”

  Oslo didn’t take Dusty back to Jerry’s, because he was afraid of what he’d find there. He’d given them a tree, and he did not want to know what wish it had granted. He just turned the rig around, whispering in Dusty’s ear that she only had to walk a little bit further, just a little bit further, and he’d treat her to apples and carrots and all the good things a dandy little horse like her deserved. He held her bridle and walked beside her, following Jasper’s voice back up the mountain.

Oslo would undo his wish, even if it was the last thing he did.

End

There you have it! A bit of Christmas “cheer” for the season.  Don’t t miss out on   Laura VanArendonk Baugh“s story tomorrow. And finally, your prize for getting to the very end! If you want to enter the draw for all the wonderful gifts, follow this link, and you’re in! The draw for wonderful prizes!